Paper of the Month: Mind-wandering may make teenagers depressed

I’m doing the one-paper-per-day challenge. Some papers will be hot off the press, others will be classics. Some will be relevant to what I’m working on at the moment, others will be from other areas. Each month I discuss my favourite paper here.

Webb, C. A., Israel, E. S., Belleau, E., Appleman, L., Forbes, E. E., and Pizzagalli, D. A. (2021). Mind-Wandering in Adolescents Predicts Worse Affect and Is Linked to Aberrant Default Mode Network–Salience Network Connectivity. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 60(3), 377–387. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2020.03.010

Background

We spend between 30 and 50% of our time mind-wandering. Some studies indicate that mind-wandering can help with problem-solving and creativity. However, there is also a dark side to mind-wandering. Specifically, increased mind-wandering is associated with anxiety and depression. Crucially, most studies cannot establish if anxiety and depression lead to greater mind-wandering or vice versa. This study by Webb and colleagues addressed this question by using repeated assessments. Further, they focus on adolescence, which is a time at which disorders like anxiety and depression often appear for the first time. Moreover, the researchers compared adolescents with and without anhedonia, which is a key risk factor for future anxiety and depression. They also link differences in mind-wandering to brain mechanisms using fMRI.

What I learned from this paper

  • It sucks to have anhedonia: The teenagers with anhedonia spent more time mind-wandering and were thinking more negative thoughts. In contrast, the teenagers without anhedonia were thinking positive thoughts when they were mind-wandering.
  • Content matters: When mind-wandering with pleasant thoughts, positive feelings subsequently increase. However, not mind-wandering is associated with the lowest amount of negative feelings, whereas mind-wandering with negative thoughts leads to the highest amount of negative feelings.
  • Don’t default to the default mode network: connections between the medial prefrontal cortex and salience network may be particularly important for mind-wandering related to anhedonia

Top quotes

Consistent with a putative causal role of mind-wandering contributing to lower mood, time-lagged analyses revealed that mind-wandering predicted lower happiness at the next experience sampling timepoint, but not vice versa. In contrast to the above findings, other observational and mood-induction studies suggest that lower mood may be a cause — rather than a mere consequence — of mind- wandering.

Related further reading:

Smallwood, J., and Schooler, J. W. (2015). The Science of Mind Wandering: Empirically Navigating the Stream of Consciousness. Annual Review of Psychology, 66(1), 487–518. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010814-015331

I’m a lecturer in psychology specialised in cognitive neuroscience. My research investigated brain development in young people who struggle in school.

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